Friday, December 24, 2010

Thoughts on language and "the environment"

The hard sciences are characterized by the fact that they are used to study, describe, and predict the physical world - the mundane world - in a way that is (supposedly) divorced from social constructs that may introduce bias. It is one reason why the use of the language of mathematics - supposedly devoid of social constructs and the ultimate objective language - is so prized in the hard sciences. (It is arguably one reason why the use of numbers is so desirable among both researchers and the larger public is because numbers carry with them a high level of perceived objectivity... and therefore - perhaps - 'truth'.)

I would argue that mathematics is, itself, its own language. Even when learning of mathematics in other spoken languages, the concepts - as taught through mathematics - are consistent, and (for most concepts of mathematics) they don't intersect with social constructs present in the wider social culture of each mathematician. Since mathematics effectively requires the learning and use of a language other than the mathematician's own mother tongue, one might argue that - by and large - it is not difficult for mathematicians across social cultures to understand the meanings behind each others' research.

In a similar way, the work done by many of the hard sciences (e.g., physics and chemistry) relies on the specialized language of mathematics in addition to the specialized language of each discipline. Furthermore, the concepts that many of these disciplines describe are similarly non-intersecting with that of the societies from which each scientist comes. Therefore, it is possible to teach the same concepts of (for example) kinematics and electromagnetism (two major subjects of 1st year university-level physics in the US) in English in the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand; Spanish in the various Spanish-speaking countries around the world; or even Mandarin and still provide a standard test that can test these theories that don't intersect with most modern-day social constructs and receive the same correct answers from these groups of people who may well hold very different social constructions of how the wider world (which includes social sciences, history, etc.) works.

Biology is different from the hard sciences in many ways. One of these was is that the boundaries of biology have constantly grown, and now but up against so many other physical and social areas of study, such as biochemistry, biophysics, animal behavior, neurology, biological anthropology, and ecological history. However, this point is for a different conversation. The one that I wish to focus on is that some areas of biology are derived from very distinct social constructions of how the world works. Medicine and ecology are two that come most sharply into mind, while systematics (the science of labeling all biological species and showing how they are related) also has suffered from this, but I will not speak of it further. (By the way, the controversies of evolution vs. religious teaching is, I believe, a different kettle of fish, although I am open to counter-arguments.)

Both ecology and medicine - in their widest senses - deal with things of which people have some level of intimate knowledge and may also intersect with social construction. Medicine - which deals with the concepts of "health" and "sickness" - is a field that tries to describe and treat that which every person feel they have an intimate connection with: the human body.

... more later. I've got to get something to eat.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Winter Solstice!

Solstice bonfire

Jet effect


Solstice +1.5 hours

Ngrams: a problem of misinterpreted scans

A search of the term "Nintendo" in Google's new "Google Books Ngram Viewer" tool brought up an interesting result:

Apparently, for a short period of time, the term "Nintendo" was as visible in the expanse of literature as it would be in 1995! Oh, and not a single mention of "Nintendo" between the years 1871 and 1960, and then nothing again in any published book until 1989. (Side note: Nintendo was originally founded in Japan in 1889 as a playing-card manufacturer, becoming the electronics-games manufacturer with which we are most familiar starting in 1974.)

Now, these mentions are in published material that Google has scanned from printed books over the past several years, and not the popularity of the Nintendo site online (for that, check the Google Trends page for "Nintendo"). So, how can there be any mentions of a Japanese company in English printed material about 20 years prior to the founding of that company? Well, looking at the highlighted sources for "Nintendo" from 1870, I found that in most cases, it was a mis-identification of intendo (i.e., the text-recognition software mistook a preceding letter or symbol as an "N", thus finding producing the (case-specific) results for "Nintendo" around 1870). For example:

There was also one result for "nintendo" that apparently was a footnote translation from Italian (although not modern Italian, since the phrases in don't translate directly in the Google translator).

In addition, Nintendo - as a culturally important company in the US - didn't come into being until 1974, so what are the mentions for "Nintendo" in 1960? Clicking on the link for this time period, I was provided with four results. Two of these results were additional nintendo-as-Italian examples, and the other two were examples of mis-filing. One result referenced the film Chinatown, which didn't come out until 1974, and based on the snippet view might be talking about the generation of children who grew up with Nintendo and the film Chinatown. The other result showed a Singapore Airlines advertisement snippet from the Economist magazine, which means that it couldn't be from 1960, since Singapore Airlines (as an independent entity) didn't exist until after 1972, after it split from Malaysia-Singapore Airlines. Furthermore, the result shows that the reference comes from the 364th volume, issues 8280-8283 of The Economist, which (assuming that 52 volumes per year since its founding in 1843) means that the 8280th issue would have come out in 2002 (it's difficult to find issue numbers in The Economist website, but this article that appears to have been published there was written in November of 2002).

The term "Nintendo" does appear to refer to the video game company in all of the books that I looked at for all dates after 1988.

All this means that there are some problems due to technological issues that will likely creep in to a data analysis. It is important to filter the data prior to analysis, (although one hopes that a lot of these problems won't be too problematic without all the filtering).

In addition to the technological problem of the scanning and visual character recognition software, there may also be problems in the usage of words, such with the term "Sony" (which many of us no doubt associate with the Japanese company originally founded in 1946). When doing a search for "Sony" (recall: it is case-sensitive), one gets a lot of noise prior to the 1970s (when the company was introducing the Betamax video cassette and the Walkman).

You know it's the end of the semester when...

Yesterday, I went to the Dana building to see if some friends could go out for lunch, what with it being the last week of the semester. My labmate - one of the graduate student instructors of one of the core curriculum courses in SNRE - informed me that, since the core course exam was finished, he would have to spend the next X hours correcting it, together with the other student instructors.... and so they would be eating the pizza that was on its way from Cottage Inn.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais

I saw this linked from another site, and I thought that it was pretty good. (Never mind that I also like much of Gervais' comedy.)

Why don't you believe in God? I get that question all the time. I always try to give a sensitive, reasoned answer. This is usually awkward, time consuming and pointless. People who believe in God don't need proof of his existence, and they certainly don't want evidence to the contrary. They are happy with their belief. They even say things like "it's true to me" and "it's faith." I still give my logical answer because I feel that not being honest would be patronizing and impolite. It is ironic therefore that "I don't believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I've heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe," comes across as both patronizing and impolite.


Why don't I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said, "Why don't you believe I can fly?" You'd say, "Why would I?" I'd reply, "Because it's a matter of faith." If I then said, "Prove I can't fly. Prove I can't fly see, see, you can't prove it can you?" You'd probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ''F—ing fly then you lunatic."


So what does the question "Why don't you believe in God?" really mean. I think when someone asks that they are really questioning their own belief. In a way they are asking "what makes you so special? "How come you weren't brainwashed with the rest of us?" "How dare you say I'm a fool and I'm not going to heaven, f— you!" Let's be honest, if one person believed in God he would be considered pretty strange. But because it's a very popular view it's accepted. And why is it such a popular view? That's obvious. It's an attractive proposition. Believe in me and live forever. Again if it was just a case of spirituality this would be fine.

"Do unto others…" is a good rule of thumb. I live by that. Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. But that's exactly what it is -­‐ a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I'm good. I just don't believe I'll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It's knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life. And that's where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. "Do this or you'll burn in hell."

You won't burn in hell. But be nice anyway.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

One more reason why I love SNRE

One more reason why I like SNRE: people bike during the winter; after snowfall that keeps most everyone else off their bikes. True enough: not as many people bike to the Dana building after a snowfall, but far more of the bike racks are occupied this morning (after yesterday's 12 hours of snowfall) than at any neighboring building.

Used bike racks at Dana
Bikes locked up outside Dana Building, Diag side. (A similar number could be seen on the hoops on the south side of the Diag entrance as well as on the east side of the building. GO SNREds!)

Empty bike racks at Chemistry
Empty bike hoops at Chemistry. Just a few weeks ago, this area was nearly full of bikes.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Partial answer to a question I had

I read this story on my PhysOrg news feed today:

Lighter bikes may not reduce commuting time, researcher says

The upshot of the research with this one is that a doctor's 44-minute journey on his 13.5kg, £50 bike would be made faster with his new 9.5kg, £1000 bike. He realized that it was actually only a one-minute decrease in time to 43 minutes.

As a scientist, he did a randomized trial on his commute (flipping a coin each morning to choose which bike to ride), and found that there actually wasn't any major difference in the time that it took him.

I had been wondering the same thing: whether it was weight that was a more significant factor than components to shaving off commute time. I had kind of made up my mind that - based on the marvelously improved cycling speeds and times that I have been able accomplish with my current bike over my old Giant Sedona that it is primarily due to the components, since they both weigh about the same (and my current bike, with its panniers, often is heavier than how I normally rode the Sedona).

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Photographed Teotihuacan...

... from the air. (December 5, 1:18pm)

Rafys' plane on final call

December 5, 5:50am.

Rafys' airplane's status has changed from "ON TIME" to "FINAL CALL". It appears that it will leave on time.

At terminal 2 of Benito Juarez Int'l Airport

December 5, 5:00am

Rafys went through migración (what is also mislabeled here as "immigration", whereas it ought to be "emigration") about 30mins ago. It wasn't easy saying our goodbyes, although we both really started saying them a few days ago. Little things, like thinking about my schedule on Monday or realizing thatg I needed to put together a surveymonkey for the ELI gred students who used the writing clinic tghis semester, started impinging on the mind, drawing it away from the immediacy of the moment, but also helping cushion the blow when it would eventually come: 4:30am as it turned out for me.

We spent out last night together by going out for a bit of a fancy dinner at a traditional Mexican restaurant in the revitalizing Condessa neighborhood of which I had read about in the Lonely Planet guide. However, as we approached our first choice, we noticed that what should have been a cozy Sonoran-style restaurant had been replaced by a modern Argentinian steak restaurant. We passed three American tourists possibly on the same mission to the same restaurent (judging from their puzzled expressions as they approached the supposed location).

We contined the three blocks over and several more up to the back-up choice, only to find another restaurant had taken its place... and had closed its doors for the night. On the positive side, we had serindipidously stumbled across an Irish pub - St Patrick's - on our way (and so managed to continue oujr trend of Irish-bar-hopping that we started in Santiago), swearing to stop in before going back to the hotel. Still, we had nowhere now planned to go for some repast.

We headed back, past a tapas place (no thanks) before heading toward the much busier Avenida Michuacan. Serindipidy was with us again, as we came across a nice little restaurant serving French food (and Italian pasta) at reasonable prices for the area.

As we sat and ate our gorgeously scrumptious dinner, we talked about growing up and what kinds of teenagers we each were. We talked about when wse each received our first cameras, and also talked about whether we had good arguments withour parents. Light talk, but also deep talk, to learn more about each other.

Our trip to St Patrick's was quick (it was only a little over one block away), and we enjoyed overly priced British and Irish beer before catching a cab at around 2:20am in order get back to the hotel for our 3am wake-up call and 3:30am cab ride to the airport. (Needless to say that we made it well on time, but wew far from the first here.)

It is now 5:30am, and Rafys' flight takes off in another half hour. Sitting where I am, I can see the huge HDTV monitor showing the departure times for her flight - the first ont scheduled out from the international part of terminal 2 - as remaining "ON TIME". Once I don't see it on the board, I'll make my way to the terminal 1 area in order to try and stay up the additional 6.5 hours until my own flight leaves.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Getting ready for traveling to Puebla

December 1, 5:50pm

We had lunch of carne asada - way too much for the three of us, but it was really tasty and we left, satisfied. On the way there, I finally was able to mail off the postcards that I had written early last week, but the guy at the post office (for some unknown reason) gave us postage in incremental stamps of 1.5 pesos, for a 10.5 peso charge per postcard. This meant a lot of pasting of stamps.

On the way back, I got to carry L's baby, and she fell asleep in the carrier. I suppose that I have the power to also put babies to sleep!

Pancake toppings

¿Qué se haga si no vive en gringolandia para cubrir sus panquéques? Por supuesto, se puede usar otras cosas que sirope de maple en los estados unidos pero el es el más comun. Por desayuno hoy, nosotros usamos 'condensed milk' y mermelada de fresas. Fue delicioso.

Hotcakes Japanese style!

December 1, 9:28am

Breakfast is fruit, hotcakes, and coffee, all while the laundry is being done.

The hotcakes are puffing up and sitting tall, just like the style in Japan! (More cake than pancake.) Natsukashiiii!!! And they smell delicious, too!

Waking up chilly

December 1, 8:48am

Tlatlauquitepec, being on the other side of the mountains, is enshouded in clouds (I would say 'mist', but it's also 1730m high), and they block the sun and introduce damp into everything. It is like when I was living in Scotland, next to the sea: dampness in everything.

Today, we are going into Tlatlauquitepec to do some shopping.


November 31, 9:50pm

One of Rafys' friends from her masters' program in Costa Rica lives right near the town of Tlatlauquitepec, in the state of Puebla. We took a bus from the TAPO bus terminal - a large, domed terminal building proudly proclaiming 30 years of service - for 5 hours, winding through hills and the base of mountains, until we reached the fog-enshrouded town of Tlatlauquitepec at near dusk.

Taking a taxi from the primary bus drop-off for a short, dark, winding trip to her friend's house. We were met there by her friend, who quickly ushered us inside and out of the drizzly, damp night air. There, Rafys and her friend ("L") spent a long time catching up, talking about former classmates, and reminiscing about their time together in Costa Rica. And man can L speak fast! It took me about the first hour to get my brain comprehending at the same speed at which she spoke, and the following hours were spent trying to maintain that pace. My Spanish sounded even more slow and laggard than normal - even to my ears.

At the north bus staion

November 30, 8:40am

We just got on the Piramides bus for San Juan Tenotichlan (one every 10 minutes). The north bus terminal is HUGE, with upwards of a hundred different bus line companies. The building is in the shape of a large pyramid, with glass letting in light, making for an airy atmosphere. It was might brighter and spacious than any bus station that I had ever been in, definitely putting the bus stations in the US to shame.

Thse ticket to go to San Juan Tenotichlan (supposedly 1 hour) was 26 pesos; perhaps speaking to the drawing power of the pyramids.

Our trip to the station was, as Rays commented, an Odyssey. We left the hotel (thanks to, no need for a lengthy check-out) and I suggested walking to the Reforma metrobus station: closer to our hotel, but with a need to cross the massive Reforma Avenue and then make our way to the not-as-massive Insurgentes Avenue, all while dodging the morning rush hour police-guided traffic as well as the many pedestriand coming out of the metro station... Each of us with large bags (me with a large backpacker's bag and Rafys with a large rolling bag). I had thought that a trip straight along Avenida Insurgentes would get us to the bus station.

I was wrong. We would have to get off at La Raza and take the metro to the bus station. On the positive side, we were going against the flow of traffic, and so the metrobus was almost empty, and we watched each city-bound bus, already packed with people, stop to try and accept even more. A part of me wondered when the city government would start making the buses and stations double-deckers.

When we got down to the metro (after climbing up and over the metrobus lanes and the adjoining streets - Mexico City is a terrible place for the physically handicapped to take public transportation) I saw a mustard yellow sign pointing to Indios Verdes station, which I recognized as being on the way north.

As we walked down to the platform, I saw a sign labeling a transfer tunnel as 'tunel de la ciencia', and I told Rafys that I really liked that sign. Then we walked to the empty, north-bound platform and got onto a similarly sparse train car. Once onboard, however, Rafys noticed that none of the three remaining station names matched what we needed. A quick look ayt the metro network map confirmed -  as the doors closed - that we were on the wrong line; that we needed to take the yellow line, not the brown-mustard-yellow line. We would have to take the metro back one station and make our transfer... and then Rafys reminded me, "It's the crowded one."

Small blessing: the station platform on the next station was a shared one for north ans sout-bound trains, and so we only had to cross the platform and wait with the ever-growing crowd of morning commuters. I had - since we had gotten off the metrobus - taken charge of both large bags, since the metro stations were as replete with stairs as they were with a dearth of escalators.

After a false alarm of a completely empty meto train pulling slowly through the station, raising our hopes, the real train, already full of people, pulled in. rafys balked a little, suggesting that we take the next one, but my Tokyo and Taipei upbringing told me that each train would likely be like this for the foreseeable future and that there is always room to squeeze in, even if the people in the train don't like it (they are, afterall used to doing this every workday). Therefore, i said that we had to take this train, and pushed my way on (with my large blue backpack and Rafys' large rolling bag) while Rafys pushed into the crowd at the next door.

The position pressed up against the door I just entered by was tight and uncomfortable, but as I braced myself against the movement of the train, I consoled myself that it was only one stop. However, as we pulled into the station, I remembered that the platform at La Raza was on the other side of this packed train.

As we pulled in, I took advantage of the egress of a few other passenges and started surging toward the doors, loudly repeating, "permiso!" While pulling along Rafys' bag, heedless of the legs that it caught and knocked against; I would be getting off, and I would do it before the waiting commuters started getting on. I burst from the crowd, suddenly meeting no resistance, glanced off a man leaving the platform, and waited with Rafys (who had also managed to extricate herself from the crowded commuter train) for the platform to clear a little before making our way back to the 'tunel de la ciencia' in order to get to the yellow line, and the bus station.

The 'tunel' was lined with many back-lit photographs of Mexico's natural lanscapes, each with a brief description. Then the tunel's lighting changed to black light as we wlked under constellation maps on the ceiling, and then past more photos of Mexico's various cultural heritages. This was the 'cienia' of the tujnnel.

We did get on the right train, and got off at the right station, and entered the massive edifice. I sat and waited for Rafys to find the right bus company (something easier for her to do without a massive, hulking gringo behind her). She came to collect me, and luckily we were on the correct side of the station, and she got out tickets.

It's now 9:38am, and we just pulled into San Juan. The estimat of 1 hour given by the Lonely Planet was right!